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Japanese woman with parasol. Ambrotype, between 1870 and 1890.

Material Matters | Looking Deeper at Photographic Formats

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Photographs are portals. In our looking, their subjects usher us through bordered edges to times and places both unknown and familiar. They allow us to slip inside to discern their scenes and settings and to learn their unique pictorial lexicons.

But there is more to photographs than their subject matter. The materiality of the image, its physical component parts that make up its format, provides deeper context about how and why the photograph was made, how it relates to adjacent photographic processes, and situates it within a timeline of photographic invention and innovation. It can also shed light on the life of the object when its physical aspects are considered as part of the photograph’s whole. In this new blog series, I will explore photographic processes through the lens of their material makeup.

The daguerreotype, invented in 1839, was the first viable photographic process. Daguerreotypes tell us stories not only about 19th-century subjects and locales captured on their silver clad copper plate supports, but about the materials deemed necessary for keeping the images safe from physical damage. The image on its metal plate was usually housed in a wood and leather or thermoplastic case, and covered with a protective layer of glass, which faced a silk or velvet pad when closed. Additional flourishes, like hand-coloring, as seen in the daguerreotype below, illuminate both the desire for lifelike reproductions as well as the limitations of this process, which was chemically unable to render color.

Isadora Noe Freeman and Mary Christiana Freeman. Daguerreotype, ca. 1859.

By looking at the exterior of the case in the following image, inferences can be made as to whether this item was delicately stored or more readily handled during its lifetime. The names written on tape adhered to the case provide positive identification for the two girls depicted above.

Isadora Noe Freeman and Mary Christiana Freeman. Daguerreotype case, ca. 1859.

Less intensive than many of the silver-based processes and more user-friendly for professionals and amateurs alike, the cyanotype process was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. It was not widely used until the last decades of the 19th century, most often as a means for making proof images before creating final prints with a variety of other processes.

When viewed independently, the cyanotype below functions as a document of the built environment, capturing a house and grounds attributed to a well-known member of the community, in this case, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Stebbins, who served against the British in the Revolutionary War. But this image is one of many compiled within an album meant to conceptualize the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, as a collective of homes, roads, and open spaces.

Col. Joseph Stebbins house – built just before revolution. Cyanotype by the Allen sisters, ca. 1900.

Sisters Frances and Mary Allen became photographers after their careers in teaching were cut short due to both developing hearing loss. They made many views of Deerfield—including the Stebbins house above—documenting the town’s buildings and inhabitants. In their album, the cover of which is seen below, the cyanotype was utilized as a primary process rather than a proof-making one. The bound edge and the hand-lettered cover accentuate the fact that these images were meant to be experienced in all their blue-hued glory.

Old Deerfield. Cyanotype album by the Allen sisters, ca. 1900.

Other photographic processes are heightened by our reading of them as physical objects. Ambrotypes and many glass plate negatives, with their emulsions on supports of glass, utilize a very similar wet collodion process. Their component physical elements and presentation express this difference, with ambrotypes often set in cases much like daguerreotypes and glass negatives left unadorned, stored simply in sleeves or boxes, keeping true to their utility as a means for making prints.

The catalog record for the wet collodion glass negative below mentions an original storage sleeve, which served as the negative’s housing over its lifetime. This image of U.S. Representative James A. Garfield (pre-presidency) and his young daughter Mollie has them sweetly posed in profile, with Garfield holding a book as if reading to Mollie. Garfield would go on to enter the White House as president in 1881, when Mollie was fourteen years old.

President James A. Garfield & daughter. Wet plate collodion negative, between 1860 and 1875.

A dark glass plate or a backing cloth behind a clear glass plate turns what is essentially a weak wet collodion negative into a positive image. This ambrotype image of a woman in traditional Japanese dress with a large parasol is thoughtfully set within a patterned paper case. Though roughly cut, the case style further denotes the photograph’s Japanese provenance. Japanese ambrotypists created images like the one below—set within paper and kiri-wood cases—late into the 19th century.

Japanese woman with parasol. Ambrotype, between 1870 and 1890.

Up next, I’ll focus on the tintype or ferrotype as it is also known, a 19th-century process whose popularity has propelled its practice well into our contemporary times.

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